Sunday, 27 October 2019

Crystal Palace parkrun

Crystal Palace is an area in South East London sitting atop one of the highest points in the capital, Sydenham Hill. Until the 1850s the area was simply called Sydenham Hill, but then something happened to change that...

the crystal palace in 1854 [photo: philip henry delamotte] (photo in public domain)

In 1851 'The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations' took place in London's Hyde Park. It was a celebration of industry and design, and the building which housed it was the magnificent cast-iron and plate-glass structure dubbed The Crystal Palace. It was designed by Sir Joseph Paxton and in total approximately 293,000 panes of glass were produced for the building. The exhibition lasted six months and attracted over 6 million admissions - this was a third of Britain's population at the time. The profits generated by the exhibition were vast enough to fund the building of the National History Museum, The Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington.

The Crystal Palace building was modular by design which made it relatively simple to take apart. So when the exhibition closed, it was disassembled and, following some major changes to the design, reassembled on the land atop Sydenham Hill (part of the Norwood ridge) on what was formerly the grounds of Penge Place. The grounds were transformed into a Victorian Pleasure Garden with vast terraces in front of the palace and numerous water features and gardens spread across the 200 acres of land. The rebuilt Crystal Palace and its grounds, now called Crystal Palace Park, were opened in 1854 by Queen Victoria.


crystal palace park - sir joseph paxton bust

One of the main features of the park was its collection of 33 life-sized models of extinct animals, known as the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs. They were designed by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins under direction from palaeontologist Richard Owen who is famous for coining the word Dinosaur (Dinosauria). Although they may look slightly odd to our modern-day eyes, at the time they caused a sensation as they were the first dinosaur sculptures in the world. Also bear in mind they were made almost 50 years before T-Rex was even discovered.

As time went on, some of the original Pleasure Garden features were removed. For example, the two large central water features were grassed over, the southern one becoming the site of a football stadium which was used to host the F.A Cup Final between 1895-1914. It was also home to Crystal Palace Football Club for the latter part of this period. The entire central area of the park is now home to the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre which consists of the athletics stadium on the same site as the former football stadium and the indoor arena occupying the site of the northern water basin. It was the venue for the London Athletics Grand Prix (now the IAAF Diamond League) from 1953 until 2012.

sports centre - racing track / radio control car track

The Crystal Palace itself suffered a few fires - One in 1866 destroyed part of the northern end and this was later replaced by a 400ft long aquarium which held 120,000 gallons of sea water - it was for a while the largest in the world and contained many ground-breaking elements. The final fire in 1936 was the one that saw this great building totally destroyed - it is said that its glow could be seen for miles around. The former site has now largely been reclaimed by nature.

From 1927-1972 the park was home to a motor racing track. It had a few configurations throughout the years, and it has a claim-to-fame for being the venue of the first-ever televised motor race. Various levels of motorcycle and car race meets were held including Formula 2 and even non-championship F1 races. If you search YouTube you can find plenty of videos, most with commentary by Murray Walker. Shortly after this in 1976, a small Remote Control Car racing track was built adjacent to the old circuit, ensuring that at least some form motor racing continues in the park to this day.


the grand walk


In the late 1960s the track was used for a scene in the movie The Italian Job (the minis being tested) and the adjacent grass used for the famous 'You're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off' scene. In 2013 it was again used, this time for the movie Rush. Ultimately the noise generated by motor racing became its downfall - the area had become just too residential for such a noisy activity to take place and the track closed down. However, you can still trace most of the route as paths and access roads through the park.

As you can see from the above, there is a huge amount of history here, and what I've written doesn't even come close to covering it all... Anyway, the modern-day park has pretty much all the features that you would expect - café, toilets, playground, but also so much more - I'll try to pick out a few of its key features as I continue.


off we go around the park

On the 29th of May 2010 the park became home to Crystal Palace parkrun with a respectable 49 participants. This has steadily grown over the years and as of late 2019 you should expect to find somewhere in the region of 350 attendees each week. We first visited this venue in January 2013 where there were 114 attendees, so I thought it was time for a re-visit, and to write a proper blog on the venue. So on the 26th of October 2019 (event 458) we re-visited.

The park contains a few car parks, but the most convenient one for the parkrun is at the southern end just off Thicket Lane - it's not very big so bear in mind that you may need to use one of the others. Thicket Lane itself seems to be free of restrictions, but is popular with local residents. The majority of the on-site parking spaces are around the central part of the park next to the sports centre. If using public transport, there are numerous bus services which pass through the local area.

terraces at the top

As for trains, Crystal Palace Station is the obvious option but Penge West is actually a little closer to the start area. Once in the park you need make your way to the south-east tip which is also the lowest point of the park. Here you will find the surviving part of the original Grand Central Walk - this is where the parkrun starts. It is also where you will find the toilets which has some bicycle racks right outside.

The route the parkrun uses varies based on time of year and if any there are other events taking place on-the-day, so bear in mind that you may end up running a different variation based on what's available to the organisers. The summer route is the main, multi-terrain, one-lap course, and this is the one that takes you through the entire park where you get to see all its features. I ran the winter course in 2013 - this sticks to the eastern half of the park only and is two-and-a-bit laps all on tarmac and light gravel. Both routes are fine for buggy runners.


parts of the terraces / rusty laptop stage

The single-lap summer route was in use on this occasion. This takes participants on a meandering journey around the entire park. The Grand Central Walk is nice and wide and lets individuals start and filter into where they feel most comfortable before the paths narrow down to the standard kind of width you'd expect. With the start being at the lowest point of the park, the early sections are where you will find most of the uphill work, in fact all of the inclines are taken care of within the first mile. Although the elevation rises by about 30 metres it is done in quite a gradual way with the exception of a couple of steeper slopes.

As you ascend, you'll no doubt be fully aware that you are in the shadow of the Crystal Palace Transmitting Station - visible for miles around. It was constructed in the mid-1950s and stands at a height of 219 metres. At the time of completion it was the tallest structure in London. It kept that status until 1991 when One Canada Square at Canary Wharf stole its crown, and as of 2019 is still the 8th tallest structure in London. The tower is used to broadcast a multitude of TV and radio signals across the whole of London.

the maze entrance / off-road bit / concrete section

Once at the top, the course heads along the original Crystal Palace terraces where you can try to imagine what it must have been like standing in the shadow of that magnificent structure. Some, but not all, of the original staircases have survived, and most of the statues have sadly been removed. There are three pairs of sphinxes on the top terrace which have been restored to their original condition and colour. If you are lucky, you may be able to spot the bust of Joseph Paxton over near the sports arena - not only did he design the palace, he was the head gardener at Chatsworth House and is responsible for cultivating the Cavendish banana which now accounts for about 50% of all bananas produced.

As the course heads back downhill you'll see the open-air concert area which has staged all kinds of musical performances since 1961. Between 1971 and 1980 the Crystal Palace Garden Parties featured the likes of Bob Marley, Pink Floyd, Beach Boys, Eric Clapton, and Elton John. The original stage was replaced c.1997 with a new one, known locally as the rusty laptop. Sadly it hasn't been used for a few years and the stage has fallen into disrepair - the council are still deciding on what its future should be.

around the dinosaur lake

Up to this point, the course has been on a mixture of tarmac and other firm or gravelly surfaces (sometimes a little bumpy), but now it changes to an off-road section as it circled around the back of The Maze which dates back to 1866. As we visited at the end of summer, it had already started to hold onto some water and was quite muddy in places. The grassy path continues alongside the old racing circuit and at the end, it passes through part of the 1960s concrete walkway that was erected when the sports centre was built.

The final part of the course is a wonderful loop of the Dinosaur Lake, past the brand new cafe and the 1961 David Wynne sculpture of London Zoo's most famous former resident Guy the Gorilla (named Guy because he arrived at the zoo on 5 November 1947). Then it's a case of heading back along the Grand Central Walk where the finish line will be ready and waiting. The new cafe is adjacent to the finish line and this is where you'll be able to mingle post-event. The food looks fantastic but comes at a price. So as I had a family of four to feed, we took the cheaper option of using the cafe in the sports centre.

guy the gorilla and the finish

We had already decided that we were going to have a post-run day out in the park, so once we had refreshed ourselves, we got on with that. We found the centre of the maze, explored a little more, watched some people playing beach volleyball, and then visited the farm - I didn't mention that before, did I? It's a City Farm, quite small, but free-of-charge and open from midday. As well as the usual farmyard animals they also have some meerkats, snakes, lizards, turtles and frogs.

Another thing I haven't mentioned so far is a hidden gem called Crystal Palace Subway - this is only accessible a few times each year and looks incredible - I'd love to come back to see it. Anyway, with a final walk past the dinosaurs we wrapped up our visit to this incredible place and hit the road back home.

cafe / farm / beach volleyball / centre of the maze / dino photobomb 2

The results for event 458 were published shortly after and attendance numbers were a little lower than usual, most likely due to an England rugby match being played at the same time as parkrun. As always, my full GPS data of the route can be found on Strava and the Relive fly-by video on YouTube. See below for further links to the winter route files from 2013.

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Sunday, 20 October 2019

Ifield Mill Pond parkrun

Ifield is a neighbourhood within the West Sussex town of Crawley. Its name is derived from 'Yew-field' owing to the numerous yew trees found in the area. It was recorded in the Domesday book as Ifelt and contains some of the oldest buildings in modern-day Crawley. It was originally a village, but was absorbed into the town of Crawley shortly after the latter was given New Town status.

This area of West Sussex was once home to many corn mills, and the Ifield Water Mill was a significant one. By the 18th century it was the largest in the area, and survey conducted around this time showed that it could supply 16 sacks of flour per-day when others could only manage 4 sacks. This replaced an earlier iron forge on the same site and in order to provide water to drive the wheel, the Ifield Brook was dammed in the 16th century. The dam is responsible for the formation of the Ifield Mill Pond.

ifield mill pond parkrun

The present-day Ifield Mill Pond is a Site of Nature Conservation Importance (SNCI) and is considered to be the most important wetland site in Crawley. It supports many species of birds including kingfishers and swans, and also frogs, toads, newts and dragonflies to name a few. The banks are home to many types of trees, all of which can be seen via the extensive network of footpaths that run adjacent to the pond.

In September 2019 the area became home to Ifield Mill Pond parkrun, which we visited on 19 October 2019 to take part in event number 5. It's a good idea to read the course page before visiting as there are some important details to take note of. Firstly, there are no facilities on-site. Actually, there is a tiny car park next to the parkrun start area, but this is not for the use of parkrunners. Instead, parkrunners are directed towards either Waterfield Gardens or Gossops Green Community Centre for free parking. Both are around 5-7 minutes walk from the start.

main out and back section

When we visited, we went for the second option for parking as this is where the closest toilets are located. For the record, the toilets are just beyond the shops at Gossops Parade (behind The Windmill pub) - officially open from 8.30am, but since the parkrun started they should be open from 8am. The walk from here to the start area is found by heading downhill along Gossops Drive - it's a straight line, so very simple.

If you were to travel by train, you will find Ifield Station conveniently placed approximately a kilometre away from the start. If you happen to be local enough to use the bus, you can use the Metrobus numbers 1, 23 and 200 buses totally free of charge by showing your parkrun barcode. I wasn't aware of any proper bicycle racks on-site, but there were a couple of bikes secured to various posts in the car park and lampposts near the finish area.

around the loop

The next set of important details to note is that the course has been deemed unsuitable for buggies and dogs. This is due to some of the paths being narrow, which on it's own may not have been a problem. However these same narrow paths are also used in both directions during the run. So while I really don't like to see any specific sub-groups of runners/walkers face bans or restrictions, I can understand why they would feel the need to put this policy in place.

The surface underfoot is tarmac all the way around and the course is pancake flat. The only part that isn't on tarmac is the finish, and if it has been raining it is likely to be pretty waterlogged. The easiest way to describe the course would be as a two-and-a-bit lap anti-clockwise (keep to the right at all times) course, and if that keeps things simple for you, it's best to stick with that. However the lap isn't just a loop. It's an out-and-back with a loop off to the side during the back section, before returning to the main out-and-back to complete the lap.

Another way of looking at at is this...

There is a central point on the path where the paths cross (the finish is here) - think of that as the centre of the course. The start is further down the path next to the tiny car park just off Gossops Drive and if you think of the Start to the Central Point as the 'start leg', you could then think of the lap starting at this point where it can be broken down into three distinct legs. There's the Central Point to the Hollow Road out-and-back, then there's an out-loop-and-back section which goes off to the side, this is followed by another out-and-back to Gossops Drive and back. Complete this twice and you're done!

the rest of the out and back section

However you prefer the description of the course, it's actually very simple to follow plus it is fully marked with arrows and very well marshalled. The paths themselves are tree-lined and generally meander in a very pleasing way as you follow them. You spot glimpses of the picturesque Mill Pond through the trees and that is very nice indeed. It's worth keeping an eye on your footing during the return section of the main out-and-back section as leaving the path could result in a slip down towards the water's edge - for me, this added weight in favour of the decision to not allow buggies on the course.

To date the event has an average attendance figure of 140, so it's a healthy way to start a new event - it may of course instantly have become home to locals who had previously travelled across town to the original parkrun in Crawley at Tilgate Park which now attracts over 500 attendees per week. Either way, it's a peaceful and pleasant place to come and spend some time on a Saturday morning.

the finish, the big community relay baton and ifield water mill

The post-event coffee venue is at the Squires Garden Centre which is just under a kilometre down the road. We didn't make it, as once we had finished (and after we'd had a photo with the Big Community Relay baton), we made our way over to the northern end of the area to have a look at the 17th century Ifield Water Mill building which is still standing. It's only open for visits on the third Sunday of every month, so we had to make do with admiring it from the outside.

The results were published shortly after and 114 attendees took part in event 5. My GPS data of the route can be found on Strava while the Relive course fly-by video can be viewed on YouTube.

Update regarding the course: In the event report for event 5 it was announced that a slightly different configuration of the course would be be in use for event 6 to avoid finishing on the slippery glass, and this may stay in place over the winter. There's a full description within the report.

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Sunday, 29 September 2019

Squerryes Winery parkrun

In the county of Kent, just to the south of the M25 and a stone's throw from the border with Surrey, is the pretty town of Westerham. It was recorded in the Domesday Book as Oistreham, effectively meaning something along the lines of 'western homestead', which would most likely relate to its position in relation to the larger town of Sevenoaks, 8km to the East. The area is known to have been inhabited for thousands of years.

statues on westerham green / squerryes winery

The town is known for being the birthplace of General James Wolfe, who is most famous for defeating the French army in Quebec in 1759 (where he died) during one of the battles for control of Canada. It was also home for a period to Alice Liddell, who was the inspiration for the Alice's Adventures in Wonderland book. However its most famous link is that to Sir Winston Churchill who lived at the nearby Chartwell Manor from 1922 until his death in 1965.

Westerham is home to another country estate, Squerryes. The grounds cover 2,500 acres of land on the outskirts of the town which are largely used for farming wheat, barley, and rapeseed. There is a 200-head dairy heard who supply fresh milk for a well-known supermarket. The house is called Squerryes Court and has been home to the Warde family for almost 300 years. In 2006 the estate owner planted 35 acres of grapes which now produce award winning sparkling wines. It is thought this same land was also used by a Roman land owner to do the same thing.

meeting point

The area of land in which the vineyard is located is halfway between Westerham and the adjacent village of Brasted. It's also not far from Biggin Hill airport and the former home of Charles Darwin, Downe House. As well as the vineyard and winery, there is a farm shop, cafe and the Westerham Brewery. In September 2019 it became home to Squerryes Winery parkrun, making it the 21st 5k parkrun in Kent. We visited the venue on their third event.

Due to the vineyard's countryside location, travelling to the venue is most convenient by car and there is a free on-site car park just inside the entrance. The nearest train stations are Oxted and Sevenoaks which are both just over 5 miles away from the venue. The 594 bus will get you from Oxted to the centre of Westerham. Another option would be to take the 246 bus from Hayes (Kent). The remaining walk involves using a public footpath through some fields (see the venue's course page for more info) as the main roads leading to the venue have no pavements.

start

Once on-site the start of the parkrun is easily found just on the grass in between the cafe and winery buildings, with the toilet being located within the cafe building. The briefings takes place here and an important point to note is that freedom runs are not possible at this venue as it is private land, with access only being granted for official events.

The description of the course in writing (and during the briefing) makes it seem quite complicated, but once underway, it's actually fairly simple. The start is right next to the vines and is fairly spacious which is handy for lining up.

going around the vines

The opening section is on grass and involves a V shaped loop around the southern perimeter of the vines. I was expecting to see vines as far as the eye can see, but they occupy only a very small space - nothing like the scale of the Denbies Wine Estate (home to Mole Valley parkrun) which is about 20 miles to the west.

Once past the vines the course heads around the fields. When we visited, whatever crops had been growing had already been harvested so the landscape looked fairly bare.

the east field

There are essentially two laps to negotiate from here - the first is a large one which circumnavigates the east field and the west field before heading back past the vines. The second is a smaller lap of only the east field. The River Darent runs along the southern boundary of the course, and you can see it if you have a keen eye. It's the same river that runs past my home, so it was a nice link for me to look out for.

Once the second lap is complete, you head back along the vines, and then you get to do the coolest thing... There's a u-turn which leads you in between the vines, which we absolutely loved! The finish is then found back next to the start.

east and west fields

The surface underfoot changes between grass and dirt every now and then, but it is worth taking note of the fact that there are sections which are proper field dirt - ie you are not running adjacent to the fields but actually on them. There are also plenty of uneven surfaces and the odd rabbit hole. I forgot to change into my trail shoes when I arrived and ran in road shoes, but trail would have been the better option.

Some sections were slippery and it was only just the end of summer. Once the winter conditions set in, there is no doubt in my mind that this will turn into an absolute mud bath - great fun for those that enjoy cross-country courses, but I suspect the question around shoe choice will come down to trail or spikes. Of course, please do check with the core team before taking part in spikes.

west field

As for the elevation, there are some mild undulations around the course - the most notable incline is during the opening section of the east field as you head up towards the M25 which runs along the northern border of the farmland.

Overall, somehow it felt to me that there were more downhill sections than uphill, but of course that can't possibly be true! It's also worth noting that the official webpage for the event has stated that this course is not suitable for buggies, which is pretty sound advice. I'm sure some buggy runners would be fine in dry conditions, but I would talk to the team before doing so.

through the vines

Once the 5k is complete, barcodes and finish tokens scanned, the cafe is on hand to provide some refreshments. From what I could see, all the seating was outside. You can of course do a bit of shopping in the shop - I picked up a fresh sourdough loaf and some local eggs.

You could also buy some of the award-winning wine or maybe pop into the Westerham Brewery to see what goes on in there and maybe take home some local beer. I hear they do tours and other similar things, but you may need to book in advance if this interests you.

finish etc...

Overall, it was a really great little place to visit. I recorded the run with my Garmin and you can see the data on Strava. You can also get a better idea of the course by watching the Relive video which was created with the GPS data. At event 3 there were 146 participants - this included a large number of tourists, so once the initial buzz has worn off, I suspect numbers will remain quite modest, especially over the winter months.

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Sunday, 11 August 2019

Tonbridge parkrun

Tonbridge is a historic market town in Kent. It was recorded in the Domesday Book as Tonebridge and was known for centuries after as Tunbridge. The origin of the name is not certain, but it is thought to have come from either; an estate, manor or farm (Tun) with a bridge, a bridge belonging to Tunna (an Anglo Saxon name), or simply a contraction of 'town of bridges' owing to the high number of streams the high street would have crossed.

Following much confusion with the newer spa town of Tunbridge Wells, in 1870 the post office had the name of the town changed from Tunbridge to Tonbridge. Even with the change, the pronunciation stayed the same [Tun-brij] which continues to this day. The wider borough of Tonbridge and Malling has a population of around 40,000 people.

tonbridge

One of the main features of the town is the motte-and-bailey castle, Tonbridge Castle. The original wooden structure was built by Richard Fitz Gilbert who had been awarded 176 Lordships following the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. The current Gatehouse was commissioned by Richard's descendant Richard de Clare. It took 30 years to build and was completed in 1260. Tonbridge is also famous for its public boys' school Tonbridge School, which dates back to 1553.

The town also features a public park, Tonbridge Racecourse Sportsground, which is just off the High Street. It sits on land which was used for horse racing for a period of 23 years from 1851 until 1874. The park covers 69 acres and has facilities such as sports pitches, a playground, and mini-golf. Next door is Tonbridge Swimming Pool which has indoor and outdoor pools (they are linked, so you can easily transfer between the two without getting out of the water).

briefing / start

The park became home to Tonbridge parkrun on 9 November 2013, and I attended that very first event. Since that date, the original course has been modified, so almost 6 years after writing my original blog, I popped back over to see how things are going and to write this update. The first thing to note is that the event has grown. A lot. On any given week, you would have to expect the number of attendees to top 500, but this seems to be increasing to 600 with a handful of occasions being over 700.

The meeting point for the event is just inside the park, next to the River Medway, opposite the swimming pool. For those arriving by car, there is a car park at the swimming pool called 'Lower Castle Field Car Park', but given the numbers of people attending, it will probably fill up long before 9am. The closest alternative is just a few hundred metres away outside Tonbridge Castle and this is 'Upper Castle Field Car Park'. Current fees are £1.30 for an hour, £2.30 for two, or £3.10 for three.

opening stretch

If taking the train, Tonbridge Station is only a short walk away from the park. For any cyclists, there are fences around the park which will come in handy for securing a bicycle. There are also some bike racks outside the swimming pool. There are a few options for toilets - the swimming pool has some, also there are some more within the park less than 50 metres from the start area, and there are also some just next to the old Tonbridge Fire Station which is next to the Castle.

The course is run on an out-and-back lollipop-style route. The start section is of course in the park, but this event has a lot more to offer than just the park! It's a flat course and underfoot you will find mostly tarmac paths, but some are a little muddy/splashy when the weather turns. It's absolutely fine for buggy running too. The initial footpath is way too narrow to accommodate the entire field of participants so there is quite a wide spread of people across the grass as the course meanders along next to the river.

cycle route / bridges

It's not long before the route crosses the first of seven different river crossings which takes you into the other side of the park. There is a mini out-and-back here, which feeds the participants onto Cycle Route 12 - this links Tonbridge via a mostly-traffic-free route to the village of Penshurst, which, incidentally, is where you'll find Kingdom parkrun (my venue blog). The majority of Tonbridge parkrun is on this cycle route, so keep an eye out for cyclists.

The course then leaves the park by passing under the railway line (watch your head if you're tall) and heads onto the tree-lined path that leads towards Haysden Country Park. The path eventually opens out to a decent width, however the next few bridge crossings are essentially single file, so things may get a little congested at points depending on your position in the field. Keep an eye out for the World War Two pill box nestled inside the bushes.

haysden country park / barden lake

After crossing Lucifer Bridge (concentrate on your footing, it can be a tiny bit slippery) and Little Lucifer Bridge, there's another section through woodland as you enter Haysden Country Park, and as you cross the seventh bridge, the glorious sight of Barden Lake comes into view. The lake itself is not a natural feature - it is the result of a sand and gravel extraction pit which was in operation during the 1970s and 1980s. If the regular route is being used, you complete a full lap of the lake before heading back. However there is a 'B' route which has a turnaround point halfway around the lake.

The remainder of the 5k is just a simple case of re-tracing your footsteps all the way back over all the bridges (making it 14 crossings in total), under the train line, along the mini-out-and-back and back around to the original meeting point, which has now become the finish. It's worth noting that depending on where you are in the field you may have two-way runners/walkers on some of those single-file bridges. This will mostly affect those towards the front and back of the field.

bridges / a view / cycle route

Personal barcodes and finishing tokens are scanned right next to the finish, and with over 500 participants you may have to be patient in a queue, but that's just a perfect opportunity to chat to fellow parkrunners, isn't it? The post-event coffee takes place in the Swimming Pool Cafe, but there's no way that it'll accommodate everybody. Fear not, Tonbridge High Street has a nice selection of cafes (both big brands and independent) and also a Wetherspoons in case you need an alternative.

I recorded the route on my Garmin and you can view the GPS data via my Strava account. You can also see a Relive course fly-by video on my YouTube channel. Also, a few years ago, we made a video of the course - it was filmed using just our mobile phones, and I think it worked out pretty well considering. The results for event 300 were published shortly after and 462 people took part - slightly down on a regular week probably due to the forecast for strong, gusty winds. Finally, a big thanks to all of the volunteers without whom the event couldn't happen.

approaching the finish [left and bottom right photos: scott wishart]

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Sunday, 4 August 2019

Walmer and Deal Seafront parkrun

The towns of Walmer and Deal are found on the east coast of Kent. Although technically separate they are contiguous and indeed share many amenities. They have a combined population of around 40,000 people with Deal, the larger of the two, being home to around three-quarters of this figure. The towns are fairly residential and their seafronts are picturesque and quite natural in character.

The two towns, together with Sandown to the north, sit in a strategically important place, as just six miles off the coast lies the 16km long sandbank called Goodwin Sands. Sitting right next to The Dover Strait (the busiest shipping lane in the world) has lead to it becoming notorious for claiming sea vessels that sail too close. Over the years around 2,000 ships have become wrecked here. The area between the sandbank and the coastline is called The Downs and, maintaining the delicate balance of nature, this provides ships safe refuge from bad weather.

walmer castle / julius caesar etc...

These features also contributed to this stretch of coast being an ideal place to land a ship. In fact, Walmer is said to be the place where Julius Caesar landed in 55BC and 54BC. The ease of landing ships here meant it was a high risk as an entry point for an invading army, and with poor relations with both France and the Holy Roman Empire, King Henry VIII ordered the building of a chain of defensive Device Forts at strategic places around the south of England.

A line of three stone forts (castles) with earthwork defences and Bulwarts in between was constructed in around 1539-1541. Deal Castle was the largest of these with Walmer Castle and Sandown Castle making up the trio. Together they were known as the Castles of the Downs, and while Deal and Walmer Castles are intact, Sandown suffered from coastal erosion followed by being partially demolished for its stone and is now effectively a ruin that has been incorporated into the local sea defences.

walmer and deal seafront parkrun

We visited the towns on 3 August 2019 to take part in the 48th running of Walmer and Deal Seafront parkrun. The official course page directs visitors to park in the Kingsdown Road car park (free of charge) which is conveniently placed right next to the toilets (open from 7am) at the southern end of the course - from here it's a kilometre on-foot along the seafront to the start/finish area. For the record, the roads immediately adjacent to the start/finish do not have any parking restrictions.

If traveling by train, both Walmer Station and Deal Station are around 2km from the start, so take your pick as to which one you alight at. Although if you need to visit the toilets, you may find that Deal Station is the better option as a second set of toilets are available for use on Marine Road (also open from 7am), which is en-route. I couldn't see any cycle racks at the start but there is a barrier/fence alongside the road that all the parkrunning cyclists were using.

start area / opening section

The 5k event started on 15 September 2018 and attracts around 200 participants each Saturday morning (at time of writing, the official current average is 195.1). The course is effectively an out-and-back along the seafront (no surprise there given the event's name!) but the start/finish is in the middle rather than at the end of the out-and-back, so you head 1.5km out-and-back to the north and then 1km out-and-back to the south.  Underfoot is tarmac and the course is flat.

Starting at Walmer Green adjacent to the road called The Beach, the route heads to the north towards Deal with the stony beach to the right and grassy lawns to the left. The path is of a fairly regular width with a designated cycle path running along one side of it. It's worth keeping an eye out for the benches which could pose a hazard during the opening section as they take up a bit of space on the path. After just a hundred metres or so, take a glance to your left where you may see the commemorative stone marking the approximate location of Julius Caesar's landing point.

deal castle / timeball tower

The cycle path seemed to be fairly busy when we visited, so take great care if close to it and avoid running in it - this can be difficult until the field spreads out, but try to be patient as a collision with a cyclist is not desirable for either party or the volunteers. You soon pass The Downs Sailing Club which is opposite the post-run cafe 'The Sea Cafe'.

These are followed by the RNLI Walmer Lifeboat Station and the bandstand. If a lifeboat needs to launch you may find the parkrun route gets diverted mid-run, so pay attention to the marshals! Before you know it, Deal Castle comes into view - it has a keep with six inner and outer bastions, plus a dry moat. As you reach the castle you officially cross into Deal.

deal pier / embracing the sea statue

Continuing northwards past the fishing boats moored on the beach, you now find yourself running alongside the road rather than being flanked by the pleasant lawns. The next landmark to look out for is the Deal Timeball Tower, a four-storey white building facing the sea. The timeball is connected by electronic signal to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Since 1855 it has been dropped at 1pm every day, giving ships' navigators an accurate time reading by which to set their instruments. Of course these days, the navigators will have modern methods of timekeeping and navigation, so it's really just a tourist attraction. During the summer (tourist season) the ball is dropped on the hour throughout the day.

Deal Pier marks the turnaround point at the northern end of the course and this is gracefully handled in the form of a loop around a 10ft tall bronze statue called 'Embracing the Sea' which features a man in a boat lifting a fish from the water. The pier itself is the third in the town's history. The first having been destroyed by a storm and the second purposefully destroyed during the Second World War as an anti-invasion measure. The current pier with its 1960s-style concrete design, opened in 1957 by Prince Philip, is 1026ft long and has a three-tiered pier head.

heading back towards walmer

The course now heads back southwards back along the same route and if it's a clear day you stand a really good chance of seeing the coast of France just over 20 miles away. Once past the original start point, the course continues further into Walmer where the paths splits into two very distinct sections to separate the pedestrians from the cyclists. This end is much quieter and has no real landmarks until you reach the southern tip of the course which is just past the Kingsdown Road car park.

At the turnaround point you may just be able to see the top of Walmer Castle through the trees on the opposite side of the road. Walmer Castle is the official residence of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, which in modern times is a ceremonial post. Over the years it has been held by politicians including William Pitt the Younger and Sir Winston Churchill, and by royalty such as King Henry VIII, Prince George (King George V) and The Queen Mother. It's also worth noting that this stretch of the course crosses the cycle path twice, so listen out for any instructions given by the marshals as you approach.

the walmer out-and-back

All that's left to do now is head back to the start/finish area. There's one section where the route briefly follows a different path but you are soon filtered back onto the main one. With the 5k complete, barcodes are scanned adjacent to the finish and then its over to The Sea Cafe for breakfast etc. I had the vegan breakfast which was nice, but for some reason they put butter on the toast which was disappointing.

We followed this with a lovely day out in the town, where we visited Deal Castle (my daughter managed to run into a historic cannon and spent the rest of the day with a golf ball-sized lump on her forehead - other than that she was fine), watched the timeball drop - the ball rises half-way at five-to the hour, rises all the way to the top 2 minutes later and then slowly drops precisely on the hour. We also walked to the end of the pier, had some sorbet on the beach and generally just relaxed while enjoying the atmosphere and the sun.

finish area / cafe

The results for event 48 were published shortly after the event and 228 people took part. I can confirm that the course is quick in good conditions, but as with all seafront venues, your time may suffer if there's a strong wind coming off the sea. The full GPS course data can be found on my Strava account and the relive course video can be found on YouTube. Finally, a huge thanks to all the brilliant volunteers.

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